Our Daily Bread: Hemmingsen on Grateful Faith

By E.J. Hutchinson

Last time, we looked at Niels Hemmingsen’s elucidation of the three kinds of justice or righteousness in his postil sermon on Matthew 5:20-26 for the sixth Sunday after Trinity. His sermon for the seventh Sunday after Trinity (this year, July 26) also proves to be edifying.

The text is Mark 8:1-9, the feeding of the four thousand. Here is the passage:

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.[1]

Hemmingsen discovers three loci, or “topics,” in the text: the lot of those who follow Christ in this life; the affection Christ has for those who follow him; and the right way of using the gifts of God. In this brief post, I’d like to focus on the last of these. Hemmingsen’s discussion contains a salutary reminder that we are to receive God’s good created gifts with gratitude and acknowledgment. If we do not, we are robbing God.

Though what Christ does in the passage is extraordinary, feeding four thousand people with only seven loaves of bread, it nevertheless puts on display important principles for ordinary life. Take the very multiplying of the loaves: what general principle does such a miracle teach? The loaves increase in the hands of Christ when He prays and gives thanks to His heavenly Father. Thus we learn that “every blessing is from the Lord, as Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 4 when he says, ‘Every creation of God is good.’”[2]

It would be easy to say, “Yes, yes, blessings are good, God’s creation is good” in a general way, and move on without giving much thought to how this truth holds even in the smallest and seemingly most insignificant details of one’s own life. Thus, Hemmingsen immediately tells his reader to think about this in personal terms rather than as a vague abstraction. “Here pause a little while,” he says, “and reflect that the things you have, your food and drink, are God’s creation, not your creation. You therefore play the thief if you take anything from God when he has not granted it—which you do whenever you use the creations of God without thanksgiving and without calling upon God. For whatever you hold as if it were your own is another’s and illicit for you, unless you ask it of him.” 

If all our goods and blessings are from God, we must trust to receive them only at His good pleasure. And in this trust in the God of creation, a step is taken toward undoing Adam’s curse.

This observation prompts Hemmingsen to make a connection to the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” “See here,” he comments, “the same bread is called ‘ours’ and ‘God’s.’” He continues: “It is ours since it was acquired by just labor; it is God’s because it is his creation, which you are not permitted to use unless you have first asked it of him.” Paul, too, teaches this in 1 Timothy 4. Hemmingsen has already referred to 1 Timothy 4:4, as we have seen, but he now includes the rest of Paul’s statement: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

This “sanctification” of earthly goods requires faith—for how can one hear the Word rightly and give thanks to God without faith? If all our goods and blessings are from God, we must trust to receive them only at His good pleasure. And in this trust in the God of creation, a step is taken toward undoing Adam’s curse. As Hemmingsen puts it, in hearing this teaching about God and his creation with faith, “we profess that we believe…that we belong to the number of those who by grace have received in Christ that right of just dominion over the rest of animate nature that was lost in Adam, in order that we might protect this life that we devote to magnifying Christ’s glory.” Because of this “profession of faith,” we can pray that “God would grant to us to be able to enjoy” the gifts we have received from Him “with a good conscience.”

Without this faith, on the other hand, we cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer aright. Hemmingsen’s teacher, Philip Melanchthon, in his own Annotations on the text for Trinity 7, puts it this way: “Those who do not believe that these things are gifts of God recite these words (i.e., “Give us this day our daily bread”) uselessly and insult God.” This can happen for many reasons. For instance, it happens when we believe that we receive good things by chance or—more perniciously—that our happy situation was “acquired by human industry alone.” To attribute our blessings simply to our own efforts and hard work is to cease to live by faith. “The labor of the farmer by itself,” Melanchthon writes, “does not produce crops, but they come forth because God makes the earth fertile.” And it is this same faith that steadies a person in the midst of adverse circumstances. For the faith by which the world is won back for us from Adam’s curse is the faith that believes Jesus overcame the world for our reconciliation to God; and all circumstances, including crosses and trials, are ordered to the overarching purpose of the final “revealing of the sons of God,” as St. Paul says in Romans 8. So Melanchthon: “Therefore, when faith is spoken of, even if external objects vary, all such statements nevertheless include at the same time this faith about reconciliation” through Christ our Mediator, the object of “the first and highest promise” of God. Or, as Jesus puts in Matthew 6, “[S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Eric Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on the intersection of Christianity and classical civilization in late antiquity and early modernity. He is the editor and translator of Neils Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method (CLP Academic, 2018).

[1] All quotations from Scripture are from the ESV.

[2] All translations are my own.